Family in Stripes | The Bond between a Father and Son
By: Michael Whaley
The bond a father and son can grow through the love of hockey is arguably unmatched. This is a story about such a bond.
By the time I was 18 months old, my Monday nights turned into late nights at the Ice House watching the local junior B team the London Nationals. This meant that every Monday night you would find David Whaley and his son wearing their matching Toronto Maple Leaf jackets. Dad would prop me up on top of the garbage can so I would be able to follow the puck flying around the ice surface.
Aside from staying out past my bedtime, (my mother’s least favourite part) my favourite part of the Nationals games came when the buzzer sounded for intermission. While most young children are hypnotized by the Zamboni making it’s rounds, intermission meant game on for me. I had a very special job; I would hop down off of my garbage can and race around the outside of the boards searching for lost pucks and collecting as many as I could. By this time my father knew most of the officials that would be working these games, and I had struck a sweet deal with each and every one of them – for each puck I returned, I would receive a stick of original juicy fruit gum, and I loved my gum.
Monday nights at the Ice House were the first of countless memories and experiences I shared with my father in the rinks throughout our time together.
Fast forward and I am 16 years old and attending my first junior hockey training camp. At 5 feet 9 inches and weighing in at a whopping 145 pounds, I was Windsor’s last pick in the most recent draft class (last pick in the 13th round). The Spits were returning from a Memorial Championship winning season, lead by Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis, who were favoured to repeat the title; you could say I wasn’t exactly entering the camp with very high expectations.
During the last practice of camp they ran an elimination shootout. If you score you stay on the ice, if you miss you head to the dressing room. One round, two rounds, three rounds; it was down to the final two, and I was still out there. In the fourth round I won the elimination shootout, and as reward I got to go again, and again, and again. I ended up scoring 7 shootout goals in a row. It felt surreal having any sort of attention on me at all. So there I am, wow, at a real OHL camp; killing it, sticking around long enough to make it into the annual “Red vs White” game, which was the last chance to prove yourself before cuts down to a preseason roster would be made. This was further than my dad or I had thought I would make it, so another night at the downtown Windsor hotel was booked.
The game’s first two periods were certainly at a faster pace than I had ever been used to, but with my speed and my mental game being my biggest strengths, I was able to keep up. As I sat in the dressing room before the third period catching my breath, going over my play, I raise my head to hear a voice call out for me “Whales! Rychel is in the referees room across the hall, needs a word with ya’”.
When I stepped into the room Rychel (the team’s GM) tells me that he has already spoken with my dad – everyone is impressed with the way I have played camp, and they have a feeling that if I go back home to London and play regular minutes with the London Nationals, have a good season, and put on some size, I would have a good chance to crack the Spitfires roster next season. I thought to myself “Warren Rychel knows who I am! The Windsor Spitfires think I can play junior B! They believe I could one day play in the league!” I screamed inside my head. Squashing my child-like excitement, I thanked Mr. Rychel, shook his hand, and went back into my stall. All Business.
As the third period was winding down I found myself speeding up my off-wing with the puck as another one of my teammates joined me for a 2 on 1. With my passing lane blocked and not enough room to pull onto my forehand, I spun into a 180 and finished with a hard pass for a backdoor tap-in. That one felt good.
“Whales” I hear as I begin to take off my gear post-game, “they want you in the referees room again”. I gather myself and walk into the room, this time to meet Mr. Rychel and head coach Bob Boughner. “Michael”, Boughner starts, “I know we have told you and your father that you will be going home this afternoon but we have actually decided we would like to sign you, so uhh go throw your equipment into the car grab your father and meet us in the board room up top”.
I walk up to my dad waiting for me in the lobby and he can notice my stunned look “what?” he asked me. “uhhh I think, like, they wanna sign me… like they want to meet us in the board room”. We made our way out to the car in pure shock, both silent the whole way but sharing in the moment. Gathering ourselves, we entered a board room where Mr. Boughner noticed the same stunned look on my fathers face as mine, “here Dave” as he handed him a beer, “it looks like you could use one of these”.
My dad was an OHA official for 21 years from 1981 to 2002. When he first started officiating at the age of 18 he knew he had found a passion. He had always loved playing the game, but he was only limited to high school hockey, he didn’t have the size or the puck skills for junior hockey.
However, he did have one thing, his skating. My dad was an unbelievable smooth and agile skater – so refereeing it was. From that day forward, during the next 17 years of his life my father spent time growing a family.
He met and married my mother Glenda, soon to have myself and my older sister Laura join the family. A salesman by day, and a loving father by night, he spent his weekends pursuing his passion for refereeing. Every Friday night he would remind my mom as he packed up his small referee bag “Hunny you know we can use the cash! We could always use some extra cash right?!?” he would explain frantically and off he would go. Back at home with Laura and me my mother would stay, but that was perfectly fine with her; she knew it was never for the money. It had become his enjoyment, his community, his passion – he was a referee.
In 1998, my father was diagnosed with breast cancer – I was just 5 years old. I find it really hard to recall sad or scary stories from the early days of his cancer, but that’s not to say there weren’t any. As a child your father is the strongest and smartest man in the world, so when Laura and I learned that he was sick it was hard to appreciate how serious cancer was. You hear your teachers at school talk about this monster disease that kills, and then you come home from school and your dad with ‘cancer’ is greeting you with smiles and a hug, asking you to go for a bike ride, playing mini-sticks in the basement; and that’s how I grew up learning about the disease. It seemed that no matter how many times I was told he was sick, or how many times we all clung to our LiveStrong bands searching for strength, he was always going to be okay in the end.
Unfortunately for my parents, cancer was a reality for them. It truly restricted both my mother and father from doing things in life that they enjoyed doing, and for my father that meant refereeing. Due to his cancer he was forced to step back from the thing in life he was most passionate for. He had refereeing ripped away from him before he had even given himself a chance to do a game in front of me. As most of you readers will know, the referees aren’t exactly treated like royalty out there, especially in local junior hockey. This reality kept my dad from wanting me to see this sort of attention brought towards him. He knew how to handle it, it is part of the game for him, it’s not personal, he just did not want me to see that.
I wish I could capture the emotion in my mother’s voice when she tells me the story of his first game back. She talks about the moment the crowd was asked to stand for the national anthem. Back at the London Ice House, that same rink I was running around collecting my pucks for gum, she stood with Laura and I. We were the three proudest people in the stands as my father stood tall at centre ice, no more of that flow, but a bright and shiny bald head. A moment in time where the four of us knew he did it, he beat cancer, life can move on.
The feeling of comfort and stability unfortunately did not last long. After a couple years of living ‘cancer free’ the doctors found some cancer in his back. And here we went again, and again, and again. The cycle of sickness, treatment, health, and back again seemed to never end, but hey, that was all I knew remember? Yeah so dad’s sick again, he’s always sick, he’ll either always be sick, or he will get better, that is what I conditioned myself to feel. Glass half full or half empty? I tend to be an optimist. I lived those years by my fathers side enjoying every moment without having the anxiety of worrying. I didn’t have to watch the clock.
It was fall of 2011 when things began to escalate at an unmaintainable rate. With my family in London, I was across the border in the middle of pre-season with the Plymouth Whalers, an organization that had traded a bag of pucks for me at the previous year’s deadline. That fresh new season feeling was in the air, it was a new team, and a new opportunity. An opportunity you spend your whole summer working to take advantage of, and I was ready to finally take on a bigger role.
I can remember the moment I got the call clear as day. My roommate Adam Restoule and I were at a local Plymouth sports store, searching for some Detroit Tigers hats. As my phone rang I pulled it out of my pocket to see my agent Brian Macdonald calling. “Michael” he said, “your father is in the hospital, it is important you make your way home as soon as you can”. Resty looked at me and told me to get going right away, and not to worry about leaving him he would find a way home. So I rushed down the highway straight to Victoria Hospital where he was. I guess he gained his consciousness back minutes before I arrived after being out for hours. Do you believe in special connections?
The morning he was rushed to the hospital was nothing short of brilliant. As my dad sit in his chair propped up in front of morning re-runs of Sportsentre, he began to fall short of breath, without high enough energy levels to call out for help to my mother who was upstairs getting herself ready for the day, my dad made a life altering decision. He reached his index finger out with all of his strength and he blasted the volume. “Dave turn it down” my mom called, “David turn the T.V. down it is too loud!” Wondering what the hell was going on my mom came around the corner to see what was happening, and was able to call the ambulance and get him rushed to the hospital. I almost missed a chance to say goodbye to him that day.
After junior came to an end and it was pretty evident my future in hockey wasn’t looking that great and I did as I was supposed to do, I took my schooling package from the OHL and I came home to go to university. Are you passionate about school? Me neither. I spent five years numbingly working towards a double major in criminology and sociology. Woo-hoo, right. When I graduated from UWO this past spring I entered an adult world I wasn’t ready for. A real job? Who What Where When Why and How? I took a job working for my friend’s dad for the summer, running heavy equipment and moving dirt around in landfills.
The money was good, it was honest hard work, and there is something to that, a sense of pride to the daily grind. The original thought was that I would help out for a summer or two, and then move on to a career, but as last summer dragged along, and my bank account grew I began to feel comfortable. As my girlfriend Emily started to pick up on my newfound comfort, I think she began to realize that the path I was beginning to go down wasn’t the one that was meant for me. She would remind me everyday “this is only temporary, you are meant to do so much more in this life, you will find your passion and be great at it”. This is always nice to hear, but sometimes it can be hard to believe.
I have been collecting tattoos along the left side of my body to commemorate my dad’s life. It started when I was 14 years old, and around that time was the massive Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong movement, a campaign to give strength and hope and support; one my family clung onto. We all had the bands, but that wasn’t enough for me, I told my mom and dad I wanted it tattood. “That sounds like a great idea, how about in two years when you’re sixteen I’ll take you down to the store and we will both get matching ones” my dad told me, knowing full well fourteen year old kids have new ideas everyday and I would probably forget about it by tomorrow. Well tomorrow came, and I didn’t forget. Instead I woke up, jumped onto the family computer and printed a picture of a man’s back and with a sharpie I tattood LiveStrong along his left shoulder. That piece of paper hung in my bedroom until my sixteenth birthday.
Sadly due to my dads health situation his doctor would not allow him to get the tattoo, but when he sat and held my hand as I got mine done, he promised one day when he got better we would switch chairs so he could get his done too. Unfortunately that day was never able to come, and it seems every other year or so I end up back in the chair, clinging on to a new memory adding it to his memorial on my body. The most recent addition is of one of his whistles surrounded by an angel’s wings.
If you have any tattoos, you know they are a conversation piece. What does that one mean? Why did you get that? What does it say? The image of this whistle on my arm would give me the chance to talk about my dad and about his passion he found in life. My girlfriend, Emily, has heard all of the stories, but somehow I’m always remembering a new one to tell her. I think it was through all the stories about my dad that she learned how similar we truly are, and so naturally the question was asked, “why don’t you try refereeing?”
I thought why not, I could make some extra money during seasonal layoffs, and hell maybe I will enjoy it. And so after my beer league game ended on Sunday night I stopped in the office and asked if they needed any help refereeing the winter league, that I was interested in learning. Similar to my dad, I too found a passion, and I found myself wanting more. As I did some research I learned that a career in professional ice hockey officiating does exist, and I learned that one of my fellow fourth liners from the old Spitfires days, Mitch Dunning, was actually about to enter into his first season as an NHL linesman. Wow, what a gig. I needed to talk to him. He told me he was in a Colorado, going over the rule book in his hotel room as he waits for the afternoons game routines to begin. He told me how much he loved it, and how much work it was. He told me he woke up every day for four years telling himself that he was going to be an NHL referee. So I took his advice.
I have been refereeing for three months now, doing anywhere between twenty and twenty five games a week. Every day I wake up and tell myself I am going to be an NHL referee. I spend my mornings doing yoga as well as working on gaining size and strength while I watch the condensed NHL games from the day before. No I don’t watch the players, I watch every movement the referee makes. I whisper ‘good’ or ‘offside’ under my breath every time the puck crosses that blue line. I spend my afternoons refereeing local high school hockey and after that it is off to do men’s league every night from 10pm until 1am. My skating has always been my strongest suit, just like my dad’s, so the slower hockey at the night time affords me virtually 3 hours of edge training a day. I enter each game viewing it as a training session, each time working on perfecting another aspect of my young refereeing experience.
Since I started wearing the stripes, I have learned a lot, not only about the game but about myself, and about life. It is important to surround yourself with a support group of people who will push you and love you until you get to where you are meant to be. I have three of the best friends in the world, Marcus Sonier, Nathan Cross, and Evan Blewett who remind me everyday I have what it takes to get to where I want to go. I have my mother and my sister who tell me how proud they are and how proud he would be. I have an amazing 70-year-old grandpa, Reg Whaley, who demands my busy weekly refereeing schedule so he can follow me around the city game to game. And I have Emily, who never gave up telling me that I would find a passion, and that I would fall in love with it and be great at it.
I know the world of professional refereeing is a competitive one, and I know not everyone can be afforded the opportunity to turn it into a full time career. The road a head of me is not an easy one; it will be one filled with highs, lows and everything in between, but damn does it feel good to have something to work for, to reignite the passion flame I once had burning inside of me.
One day I will be able to look up during the national anthem, point up to the sky, and tell him I made it.